After Washington’s name change, Native American activists see plenty of work left to do

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the aftermath of the Washington NFL team’s decision to change its name early last week, Dr. Stephanie Fryberg had conflicting emotions — but not because the team’s now-retired nickname, a dictionary-defined racial slur, was going away.

She, like many (but not all) Native Americans, was thrilled about that long overdue change. Fryberg is a professor at the University of Michigan and member of the Tulalip Tribe who has been doing empirical research on the effects of Native American sports imagery on Indigenous people for years. She couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that the team’s motivations for capitulating weren’t exactly pure.

“I’m very aware that the Washington team didn’t do this for the right reasons,” Fryberg recently explained to Yahoo Sports. “They’re not changing their name because they care about Native people and they want to make sure that we have great futures and that the discrimination against Native peoples stops. They’re doing it because Native people behind the scenes talked FedEx, Nike and PepsiCo to no longer support them. And so really, for them, it’s about money. And there’s a part of that that’s really disappointing.”

Alas, Fryberg concedes, a win is a win, one that she and others supporting the cause will still gladly take.

“I think my first reaction was, actually, it’s about time,” said Cheryl Crazy Bull, the president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund.

“To see the big news coming out, it was kind of [like], ‘We told you — this was important to our people,’ ” said Rhonda LeValdo, a faculty member at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas. “It is important to our people to be seen as human beings, and people aren’t seeing us like that. They still see us as these past, mythological characters.”

That’s just one of the reasons why it’s important for the name change movement to continue, they say, especially since there’s no shortage of scientifically reviewed, peer-evaluated research that suggests Native American imagery in sports has tangible, negative effects on Natives, particularly youth.

And with stakes like that, there’s no wonder they have little time for frustration about the fact it took the George Floyd tragedy in Minneapolis to give the Washington name change efforts the nudge needed to get across the goal line, despite being a topic many Native Americans have been working on diligently for years.

A protestor holds up the sign with line through the Washington NFL team's mascot and the words "There is no honor in racism. #NotYourMascot."
In 2019, Native American leaders, organizations and protestors demonstrate against the Washington NFL team's now-retired nickname before a game between the Minnesota Vikings and Washington in Minneapolis. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP, File)

There’s a movement building, and there’s no time to worry about ‘credit’

When Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice beginning in late May, there was no shortage of Native American protestors who joined the cause.

“Minneapolis has a huge urban American Indian community,” LeValdo said. “So when you had that happen out there, you had a huge group of Native people that were out there protesting right along with them, standing side-by-side, supporting Black Lives Matter.”

The Floyd incident drew widespread attention to America’s racial inequities, a fight that extends to all people of color. So while all wish it didn’t take a death to cause real change in this country, there’s no bitterness that it took that final push from another community to build the totality of sentiment necessary to make the Washington name change possible.

“I’m appreciative of Black Lives Matter, that this has come out to make people realize, ‘Oh, yeah, maybe this is wrong, maybe we are doing something wrong,’ ” LeValdo said, referring to social and racial injustice. “And I welcome that. I totally welcome that.”

Especially since Washington’s decision was still the culmination of years of groundwork laid by Native American groups like IllumiNative, a nonprofit focused on challenging negative stereotypes against Native people, and First Peoples Worldwide, which focuses on social and environmental impacts of development in Indigenous communities.

“I think we certainly know we laid the groundwork,” Fryberg said, referring to Native Americans as a whole.

Besides, Crazy Bull noted, there’s still so much left to accomplish on the name change front that it would be silly to worry about “credit.”

“I would agree that the Black Lives Matter movement kind of served as the tipping point to draw national attention to Indigenous peoples’ rights, and it’s regrettable that that’s kind of how that has to happen for Indigenous peoples, but I do think that that’s what happens,” Crazy Bull said.

“Still, I don’t feel frustrated because I’m looking at what kind of ripple effects there can be.”

There will be ripples to come across all levels

The first of the reverberations that should be felt in light of the Washington name change could come at the high school level, where Fryberg said there are more than 2,000 schools in America that use Native mascots.

“We’re teaching this behavior really young, and we’ve normalized it to such a great extent,” Fryberg said.

And while there has been some progress made — “there used to be 4,000,” she noted — this remains problematic because there is research (including her own) that strongly shows negative outcomes for Native people and other people of color at schools that use Native mascots.

“We have to start looking at what it means that there are studies showing that at universities with Native mascots, white students were more likely to discriminate against other students of color,” Fryberg noted.

Yet, when this subject is broached, those who oppose name changes are likely to cite two arguments. The first is that the use of Native American imagery in sports is intended to be a way of honoring, not disrespecting, Native Americans. The second is that some Native Americans — likely a minority, according to research, but still — actually agree with that notion.

The family of the man who created Washington’s former logo — a Native American man, by the way — being split on the looming name change is a good example of this duality. So is the fact that in the Kansas City area, while there’s a petition to change the name of a local high school — Shawnee Mission North, which uses the nickname “Indians” — there has also been a counter petition started by someone who identifies as Native American.

Parsing out the diversity of perspectives

So when assessing the correct way to lean on this matter, all three women — Fryberg, Crazy Bull and LeValdo — cited the need for empathy.

“I’m deeply offended by people wearing mock headdresses and things like that,” Crazy Bull said. “And I think, if something I did was deeply offensive to someone, I would quit doing it. So it’s always surprising to me that people are unwilling to do that.”

Besides, Fryberg said, while there may be a diversity of perspectives among Native people on the subject, there isn’t a diversity of outcomes on the effects of such imagery on Natives.

“The right question [to ask yourself] is — is it harmful to Native people? Is it harmful to Native children?” she said. “And the data conclusively shows yes.”

LeValdo noted that there are statements from the American Psychological Association on the effects on Native people, too.

“We have the highest rates of suicide, and you’re having people who are using these mascots and again, mocking our Native people and making our younger generation not understand why they’re being made fun of,” LeValdo said. “They don’t know they’re not being made fun of; they just see someone dressed up in this comical character and wonder why they are doing that.”

Despite this, LeValdo also hears an interesting pushback on the need to remove Native American imagery in sports by nature of where she teaches. As a professor at Haskell, a federally operated tribal university for Natives, those who disagree with her are quick to note that the school’s athletic teams are actually known as the “Fighting Indians.”

“And you know, our students have brought up the conversation of getting rid of that,” LeValdo noted. “The biggest pushback of that has been our alumni. I think it’s generational because our older generation has been brought up being called Indians, and now this generation — especially my students that I’ve seen — they don’t want to be called Indians. They want to be called by their tribe, or Indigenous.”

Washington NFL jersey shows just "Washington" with a red jacket worn over the top with the logo replaced with a gold "DC" emblem.
In 2014, Ian Washburn, a third-generation Washington NFL fan and season-ticket holder replaced the now-retired nickname and logo with the word Washington or "DC" for the logo. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

There’s much work left to do

While there are grassroots efforts to make change at college and high school levels, there’s little doubt that pro teams offer the biggest opportunity for sweeping change. Washington’s latest decision, regardless of whether team owner Dan Snyder truly wanted to do so, is a massive step in that regard, with MLB’s Cleveland Indians’ recent decision to re-examine their name and brand not far behind.

Other teams, like the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks and MLB’s Atlanta Braves, have not followed suit, with the Blackhawks and Braves even announcing recently that they won’t be changing their names, and the Chiefs — whose nickname origin comes from former mayor H. Roe Bartle’s nickname despite the team’s many nods to Native American imagery — not offering a statement.

“I think there are people who are working on these other teams, and I think people will continue to work,” Fryberg said. “I think we just have to keep recognizing that it’s not about any one team’s name; it’s really about the behaviors and the actions that get associated with using Natives as mascots, and that when you treat Natives as mascots, you dehumanize them because we’re not mascots, we’re human beings.”

Other teams, including the NBA’s Golden State Warriors, have kept their team nicknames while removing Native American imagery over the years, but it’s unclear if that would be enough to change the behavior of fans who have embraced the type of cultural appropriation — such as the tomahawk chop — that some Native American advocates have taken offense to for years. The Chiefs eliminated the chop back in the 1990s, but reinstated it shortly thereafter due to fan outrage.

“The process really requires a complete reframe of the relationship between Natives and non-Natives ... can they change all of their fans’ behaviors?” Fryberg asked. “Can they change the way other teams and other rival fans denigrate the Chiefs because they are trying to demean that team?”

Fryberg fears it would be difficult, especially if there’s a struggle to empathize with the need for the change in the first place. LeValdo agrees.

“You’re going to have people who will go along with it, but you’re also going to have those who are devout fans and want to keep it, and I don’t think we can do that,” said LeValdo, who is firmly in favor of a Chiefs name change.

That won’t keep teams from making changes in an attempt to keep their names. The Braves recently announced they’ll be re-examining the chop and start conversations with a nearby tribe, while the Chiefs routinely cite two things — their annual Native American Heritage Game, which includes education about Native American culture, and their pregame ceremony in which the team’s “war drum” is blessed by a tribal chief — as the fruit of their yearly efforts to reach out to Native American groups for feedback. Chiefs president Mark Donovan told The Kansas City Star recently that the team is also trying to determine what it can do legally to ban fans from wearing headdresses in the stadium.

Yet, it’s still unclear whether those measures will prove to be effective enough to reduce the negative fan behaviors that bother some Native Americans so much. That’s why you can expect the name change movement, that finally bore fruit in Washington last week, will continue in different cities and at different levels of sport.

“We need allies,” LeValdo said. “We need people from all groups to help us out. Because there’s not a ton of Native people in Atlanta or in Cleveland or in Chicago. We need the help of others to keep that momentum going.”

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